On the Table: Nonprofits step up to host mealtime discussions about Bay Area housing

On The Table Discussion

Soaring housing costs have driven Silicon Valley conversation and anxiety for two decades, but nothing seems to moderate the long-term trend lines. Now, amid a crisis that regional leaders realize can no longer go unchecked without catastrophic results to the region’s people and economy, Silicon Valley Community Foundation is hosting a new initiative to enable residents to talk about finding real solutions.

The median price of a home in the valley now tops $1 million. The average San Jose apartment rents for nearly $3,000. Homelessness is on the march like never before. The pace of new home construction has long failed to match demand at all income levels, so unless something changes, the problem will only accelerate.

Recognizing the crisis point, SVCF is spearheading the organization of hundreds of “On the Table” discussions that will take place on Nov. 15 across Silicon Valley and the Bay Area.

Some hosts plan to invite local speakers, and others are inviting public participation and open conversation.

More than 300 nonprofit organizations and community leaders have already volunteered to host these get-togethers, and SVCF is seeking more hosts. On the Table hosts will provide feedback after the event, and SVCF will compile the information into a report that can be leveraged into concrete policy prescriptions addressing local needs.

On the Table Silicon Valley is part of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation's national replication of the On the Table civic engagement initiative pioneered by The Chicago Community Trust.

Let’s meet a few of the volunteer hosts to hear why they have stepped up and what they hope to accomplish during On the Table.

Luba Palant, director of community engagement, Oshman Family Jewish Community Center, Palo Alto

Luba Palant
Luba Palant
Oshman Family Jewish Community Center

Palant plans to organize at least five tables at the JCC with about 10 people at each, and let the conversation flow with light guidance.

She hopes the talks help people “identify their roles and bring more people into this conversation. I feel like most of the time the decision-making process happens at a very top level, not on the ground. I think this conversation will give people opportunities to be heard, and that brings hope.”

Palant tells a story about a JCC staff member who moved to Palo Alto years ago with dreams of buying a house and starting a family. The couple were willing to scrimp and save to make it happen. Now they have two children but no house of their own, three years after starting to look.

“Every time they put in an offer, there's somebody else who's there with cash who buys it right away from them,” she said. “They're pretty discouraged. They're seriously considering moving to a different state.

“These are people who you would consider to be making middle-income salaries, families with two college graduates. But they may have college debt they have to pay down, and they can’t live here and do that, too. This is not something you used to see five years ago.”

Almaz Negash, founder of San Jose-based African Diaspora Network

The African Diaspora Network’s primary focus is to tap members of the African diaspora and its friends to help empower entrepreneurship and economic development on the African continent. But as a Silicon Valley resident, Negash is also worried about the situation close to home. That’s why her organization is hosting several On the Table discussions tables this November.

People are going to extraordinary lengths just to get by, Negash said. Multiple families cram into spaces meant for one, and others must endure ridiculous commutes from lower-cost areas.

“Waitresses, housecleaners, baby sitters, teachers are trying to figure out how to make ends meet,” Negash said. “If we don’t have solutions, what kind of community are we going to be?’’

Rita Mancera, executive director of Puente de la Costa Sur, Pescadero

Rita Mancera
Rita Mancera

Puente serves the rural communities on the southern coast of San Mateo County, where Mancera says some families spend up to 80 percent of their earnings to rent barely adequate housing.

Mancera said Puente is constantly putting out fires in response to family emergencies, providing money for food and helping people find someplace to stay when the rent goes up.

It got so bad last year that Puente’s staff spent three months trying to find a farmworker family an affordable place before coming up with a tiny, $2,000-a-month trailer. Meanwhile, they lived out of their car. “This is a family with small children,” Mancera said.

These, Mancera said, are the people whose voices need to be heard by the well-meaning and better-off residents of the South Coast, the people with the power to change things. She loves the idea of the intimate On the Table format because larger meetings are often too intimidating. “The conversation should really flow, like a family dinner,” she said.

Mancera hopes the involvement of major players like Silicon Valley Community Foundation and other philanthropic organizations is a sign that things can change. “This will allow us, for the first time, to attack housing at a systemic level instead of just acting on an emergency basis,” she said.

Fahad Qurashi, senior director of Bay Area programs at the Youth Leadership Institute, San Mateo

Fahad Qurashi
Fahad Qurashi
Youth Leadership Institute

YLI trains disadvantaged youth in the research and speaking skills they need to become advocates for their communities. YLI doesn’t run its own housing programs, but it supports organizations that do.

Qurashi said SVCF housing initiative can help move the needle. He said policy makers and other influential people already have the data they need to tackle the housing crisis. What they need an emotional push.

“Now it’s about the stories, because that’s what moves politicians,” said Qurashi, who commutes from the East Bay because he can’t afford to live in San Mateo County.

Time is running short, he said. “I think you’ll see a lot of disasters and pain, including more homelessness, if this issue isn’t addressed immediately.”

Clarissa Chiu, San Francisco public school teacher

Chiu can no longer afford to live in her native San Francisco. But she manages far better than at least one of her former students, who now lives in a van with his mom. Normally bright and happy, he’s been having emotional difficulties since becoming homeless last year.

“He was tired often, and his stamina for writing and math was limited,” Chiu said. “He didn’t have a whole lot of friends and he was more comfortable speaking with staff instead of peers.”

She said she agreed to hold an On the Table discussion because there are far too many kids living like her former student. Housing costs are also driving teachers out of the profession, she said.

Are you concerned about the housing crisis? Please consider joining us, whether as an On the Table host or as a discussion participant. Every voice is needed if Bay Area residents want to preserve a vibrant community in which all can share in the riches of a special place. Visit the On the Table webpage to see how you can get involved.